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Screens & Tech

Foreign film in San Antonio suffers for 'Ramboville' mindset

Photo: Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr

From their inception a little more than a century ago, motion pictures were international, with important centers of production in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States. Because silents created no linguistic barriers, films could circulate widely. But the advent of talkies in 1927 gave work to translators and grief to those who oppose provincialism. The conventional wisdom insists that audiences don't go to the movies in order to read, and distributors heed it by rarely distributing anything with subtitles. One French film, The Artist, might seem an exception. But its commercial success in the United States was surely helped by the fact that, except for two telling words at the end, it is silent.

A film distributor once told me that his colleagues called San Antonio "Ramboville" — a test market for violent films but inhospitable to works in which words speak louder than actions, especially if those words are foreign. According to the Census Bureau, 45.2 percent of San Antonians speak a language other than English at home. Yet, the percentage of films exhibited here that speak another language is even lower than Rick Perry's share of the New Hampshire vote. Film is one of the glories of American culture, but no one can claim to know film without acquaintance with Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Sergei Eisenstein, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, and François Truffaut. The shame of American publishing is that fewer than 3 percent of the books it produces are translations. When it comes to film, we are even more xenophobic.

Between a mediocre foreign film and a mediocre American one, I choose the former, hoping I can at least learn something. There are two reasons to go to the movies. One is to confirm the familiar — hence the plethora of adolescent date flicks that adolescents flock to in pairs and small bunches. The other is to provide us privileged access to alternative experiences and states of mind. Even Hollywood siren Mae West chafed at the constraints of monolingualism. "I speak two languages," she declared. "Body and English." •

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